Mr. Compson is a well-spoken but very cynical and detached man. He subscribes to a philosophy of determinism and fatalism—he believes life is essentially meaningless and that he can do little to change the events that befall his family. Despite his cynicism, however, Mr. Compson maintains notions of gentlemanliness and family honor, which Quentin inherits. Mr. Compson risks the family’s financial well-being in exchange for the potential prestige of Quentin’s Harvard education, and he tells stories that foster Quentin’s nearly fanatical obsession with the family name.
Though he inculcates his son with the concept of family honor, Mr. Compson is unconcerned with it in practice. He acts indifferent to Quentin about Caddy’s pregnancy, telling him to accept it as a natural womanly shortcoming. Mr. Compson’s indifference greatly upsets Quentin, who is ashamed by his father’s disregard for traditional Southern ideals of honor and virtue. Mr. Compson dismisses Quentin’s concerns about Caddy and tells his son not to take himself so seriously, which initiates Quentin’s rapid fall toward depression and suicide. Mr. Compson dies of alcoholism shortly thereafter.
Mrs. Compson’s negligence and disregard contribute directly to the family’s downfall. Constantly lost in a self-absorbed haze of hypochondria and self-pity, Mrs. Compson is absent as a mother figure to her children and has no sense of her children’s needs. She even treats the mentally disabled Benjy cruelly and selfishly. Mrs. Compson foolishly lavishes all of her favor and attention upon Jason, the one child who is incapable of reciprocating her love. Mrs. Compson’s self-absorption includes a neurotic insecurity over her Bascomb family name, the honor of which is undermined by her brother Maury’s adulterous behavior. Caroline ultimately makes the decision to change her youngest son’s name from Maury to Benjamin because of this insecurity about her family’s reputation.
Caddy is perhaps the most important figure in the novel, as she represents the object of obsession for all three of her brothers. As a child, Caddy is somewhat headstrong, but very loving and affectionate. She steps in as a mother figure for Quentin and Benjy in place of the self-absorbed Mrs. Compson. Caddy’s muddying of her underwear in the stream as a young girl foreshadows her later promiscuity. It also presages and symbolizes the shame that her conduct brings on the Compson family.
Caddy does feel some degree of guilt about her promiscuity because she knows it upsets Benjy so much. On the other hand, she does not seem to understand Quentin’s despair over her conduct. She rejects the Southern code that has defined her family’s history and that preoccupies Quentin’s mind. Unlike Quentin, who is unable to escape the tragic world of the Compson household, Caddy manages to get away. Though Caddy is disowned, we sense that this rejection enables her to escape an environment in which she does not really belong.
A moaning, speechless idiot, Benjy is utterly dependent upon Caddy, his only real source of affection. Benjy cannot understand any abstract concepts such as time, cause and effect, or right and wrong—he merely absorbs visual and auditory cues from the world around him. Despite his utter inability to understand or interpret the world, however, Benjy does have an acute sensitivity to order and chaos, and he can immediately sense the presence of anything bad, wrong, or out of place. He is able to sense Quentin’s suicide thousands of miles away at Harvard, and senses Caddy’s promiscuity and loss of virginity. In light of this ability, Benjy is one of the only characters who truly takes notice of the Compson family’s progressing decline. However, his disability renders Benjy unable to formulate any response other than moaning and crying. Benjy’s impotence—and the impotence of all the remaining Compson men—is symbolized and embodied by his castration during his teenage years.
The oldest of the Compson children, Quentin feels an inordinate burden of responsibility to live up to the family’s past greatness and prestige. He is a very intelligent and sensitive young man, but is paralyzed by his obsession with Caddy and his preoccupation with a very traditional Southern code of conduct and morality. This Southern code defines order and chaos within Quentin’s world, and causes him to idealize nebulous, abstract concepts such as honor, virtue, and feminine purity. His strict belief in this code causes Quentin profound despair when he learns of Caddy’s promiscuity. Turning to Mr. Compson for guidance, Quentin feels even worse when he learns that his father does not care about the Southern code or the shame Caddy’s conduct has brought on the family. When Quentin finds that his sister and father have disregarded the code that gives order and meaning to his life, he is driven to despondency and eventually suicide.
Quentin’s Southern code also prevents him from being a man of action. The code preoccupies Quentin with blind devotion to abstract concepts that he is never able to act upon assertively or effectively. Quentin is full of vague ideas, such as the suicide pact with Caddy or the desire for revenge against Dalton Ames, but his ideas are always unspecific and inevitably end up either rejected by others or carried out ineffectively. Quentin’s focus on ideas over deeds makes him a highly unreliable narrator, as it is often difficult to tell which of the actions he describes have actually occurred and which are mere fantasy.
Jason’s legacy, even from his earliest childhood, is one of malice and hatred. Jason remains distant from the other children. Like his brothers, Jason is fixated on Caddy, but his fixation is based on bitterness and a desire to get Caddy in trouble. Ironically, the loveless Jason is the only one of the Compson children who receives Mrs. Compson’s affection. Jason has no capacity to accept, enjoy, or reciprocate this love, and eventually he manipulates it to steal money from Miss Quentin behind Mrs. Compson’s back. Jason rejects not only familial love, but romantic love as well. He hates all women fervently and thus cannot date or marry and have children. Jason’s only romantic satisfaction as an adult comes from a prostitute in Memphis.
Unlike Quentin, who is obsessed with the past, Jason thinks solely about the present and the immediate future. He constantly tries to twist circumstances in his favor, almost always at the expense of others. Jason is very clever and crafty, but never uses these talents in the spirit of kindness or generosity. Though he clearly desires personal gain, Jason has no higher goals or aspirations. He steals and hoards money in a strongbox, but not for any particular purpose other than selfishness. On the whole, Jason is extremely motivated but completely without ambition.
Jason’s lack of achievement stems primarily from his relentless self-pity. Jason never forgives Caddy for the loss of the job at Herbert’s bank, and he is unable to move past this setback to achieve anything worthwhile in his later life. Ironically, Jason becomes the head of the Compson household after his father’s death—an indication of the low to which the once-great family has sunk.
Miss Quentin is the lone member of the newest generation of the Compson family. Many parallels arise between Miss Quentin and her mother, Caddy, but the two differ in important ways. Miss Quentin repeats Caddy’s early sexual awakening and promiscuity, but, unlike Caddy, she does not feel guilty about her actions. Likewise, Miss Quentin grows up in a meaner, more confined world than Caddy does, and is constantly subject to Jason’s domineering and cruelty. Not surprisingly, we see that Miss Quentin is not nearly as loving or compassionate as her mother. She is also more worldly and headstrong than Caddy. Yet Miss Quentin’s eventual success in recovering her stolen money and escaping the family implies that her worldliness and lack of compunction—very modern values—indeed work to her benefit.
Dilsey is the only source of stability in the Compson household. She is the only character detached enough from the Compsons’ downfall to witness both the beginning and the end of this final chapter of the family history. Interestingly, Dilsey lives her life based on the same set of fundamental values—family, faith, personal honor, and so on—upon which the Compsons’ original greatness was built. However, Dilsey does not allow self-absorption to corrupt her values or spirit. She is very patient and selfless—she cooks, cleans, and takes care of the Compson children in Mrs. Compson’s absence, while raising her own children and grandchildren at the same time. Dilsey seems to be the only person in the household truly concerned for the Compson children’s welfare and character, and she treats all of the children with love and fairness, even Benjy. The last chapter’s focus on Dilsey implies a hope for renewal after the tragedies that have occurred. We sense that Dilsey is the new torchbearer of the Compson legacy, and represents the only hope for resurrecting the values of the old South in a pure and uncorrupted form.